Spring 2020 Course Schedule

American Courts: Structure, People, Processes, Politics (LAW-838-001)
Russell Wheeler

Meets: 05:00 PM - 06:50 PM (Tu) - Warren - Room N103

Enrolled: 6 / Limit: 16

Administrator Access


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The seminar explores American judicial systems, with non-exclusive emphasis on federal courts. It should be of special interest to those who consider working in courts as litigators, judges, law clerks, or interns, as well as others who want to look beyond the façade of judicial decisions to understand how courts work.

The seminar covers court organization, including the judicial self-governance institutions that produce, for example, rules of procedure and evidence. It analyzes state and federal judicial selection processes and the roles therein of executive officials, legislators, political parties, interest groups (e.g., the bar), sitting and would-be judges, and voters. It asks about the impact of selection processes on the make-up and behavior of the judiciary. The seminar examines ethical rules that govern judges and mechanisms for dealing with judicial misconduct allegations. It examines courts’ relations with legislators, who fund and, to a degree, govern the courts, and courts’ relations with the press and social media, which are a principal means by which people gain what little knowledge and opinions they have about courts. It analyzes recent changes in how trial and appellate courts dispose of cases, including the decline in—even disappearance of—trials and traditional appellate procedures.

I ask each class member to select a federal district court and its corresponding court of appeals to provide specific focus on the seminar themes.

Seminar Sequence

Part I—Structure and Personnel (five sessions): structure and personnel of the courts, court governance and rule-making, and selection and education of judges.

Part II—Dealing with Judicial and Political Environments (five sessions): regulation of judicial ethics, judicial-legislative relations, courts and the media in their various forms.

Part III—Court Performance (three sessions): trial and appellate court performance, appellate court structural revision.


Grading is based on three essays on assigned topics, submitted at the end of each course part. The essays require no outside research. They let students demonstrate their familiarity with the readings and class discussion and their ability to analyze conflicting points of view. Grading also reflects participation in class discussion.


The three essays do not by themselves meet the ULWR standards, but I am prepared to supervise a small number of ULWR projects that elaborate on some aspect of an essay assignment or other mutually agreed-upon topic.


The seminar does not use a standard textbook. Instead, I will post materials I have developed, including substantial amounts of original text and illustrations, as well as excerpts of scholarly and popular literature, cases, and legislation. I will post the readings for Part I by late December or early January.

First class readings

The first class will provide an overview of the course elements, requirements, and grading policy—no advance reading for the first day.

Textbooks and Other Materials

The textbook information on this page was provided by the instructor. Students should use this information when considering purchases from the AU Campus Store or other vendors. Students may check to determine if books are currently available for purchase online.

First Class Readings

Not available at this time.


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